High school business studentsAs a junior in high school, Stephen McKown imagined that a boss’s expectations in the realm of employment would be similar to what his teachers at school expect.

“Your boss would be like a teacher who assigns projects that you complete and you move on to the next project. One thing after another,” he said.

As a student in the Ames High School Business Engagement Collaborative, however, McKown is working beyond the classroom to understand the skills and attributes employers need and expect.

Vicki Hales, the Ames High School business teacher who designed the program in cooperation with Alison Doyle, Marketing Director of the Iowa State University Research Park, said businesses are looking for new employees who come ready with employability skills.

“Those soft skills are hard to teach in the classroom,” she said.

The Collaborative provides high school students experience working with businesses to gain skills in entrepreneurship, communication and project management. Iowa State University Research Park provides space in its new, state of the art building, and mentorship and guidance from Doyle.

Doyle said ISURP was motivated to implement the program because its tenant companies are increasingly looking further back into a student’s educational process to begin recruiting talent. They also want students to be more prepared when they enter the workforce with soft skills.

Hales said students learn the value of showing up on time, learning how to speak in a professional manner to someone they don’t know, how to collaborate in and communicate with a group, and how to understand someone else’s perspective, for example.

“Having students learn in an authentic business setting working on projects throughout the community helps them naturally acquire and enhance those skills,” she said.

One of the benefits of the program is the opportunity it gives students to test out an array of interest areas through the various projects business partners are providing, she said.

“We’ve already had students discover they don’t have as much interest in a particular area as they thought they did, but we have also had students find talent and passion in things they never considered.”

Tatiana Tankhai, a senior who’s currently working on three projects, said she’s learned she’s talented at planning and organizing.

“Students do learn and grow from this program,” Tankhai said. “This class gives us people to guide us. We get feedback and we’re learning something new every day.”

McKown said the process is usually harder than he thought it would be.

“It’s more like climbing up a rock wall, finding one foothold after the next,” he said. “You learn to conquer something new.”

Students have help finding that foothold through guidance from Hales and Doyle.

“The students receive mentoring so they understand the business expectations and hone their work until it’s top notch,” Hales said. “By the time the businesses see a project proposal, it’s a good product and not the first draft.”

The research park provides the space and Doyle’s time at no charge to the District.

“We see this as a way to expose students to a variety of possible career paths, company brands and provide a true experiential learning experience. It’s a win win for our students and our companies.”

Hales said businesses are encouraged to give feedback and fine tune students’ projects until they meet their satisfaction.

“Their grade for the class, however is based on an assessment of their soft skills, which are the competencies required to be met for DMACC credit,” she said.  “More important than their grade, this program helps students become better employees for our local businesses, and that comes back to benefit our community.”

Students in the Business Engagement Collaborative receive both Ames High and DMACC credit upon successful completion of this course.